So St. Francis is generally seen as this proto-hippie by many people, a guy who loves nature and animals and is generally about messages of peace. To a certain extent that caricature bears truth. Francis was indeed a man who can be classified as a nature mystic, not because he loved creation as a means to something or “loved the environment” in some general way, but because he recognized the primordial truth that all of the created world — including himself and other human persons — are united in their relationship to the Creator, the One who lovingly brought all that is into existence. It is for this reason that Francis could call the Sun, Moon, Water, Fire, his brothers and sisters.
There is another side to Francis that often doesn’t get seen in the popular presentation of the Saint. He could be very bold and direct, always, it would appear, for the sake of the Kingdom of God and for the good of his brothers and sisters. Most often he is advocating for the poor and marginalized of his time or fraternally correcting the faults of his brothers. Yet there are also times during which Francis goes to some lengths to communicate a prophetic and spiritual message to a broader audience. In one such case, in his “Letter to the Rulers of the Peoples,” Francis draws on the reality of our human finitude, invoking death to help present the immediacy of his message. Speaking to the civil leaders of his day, Francis’s letter speaks a prophetic word to the leaders of our own day and to us as well.
Reflect and see that the day of death is approaching. With all possible respect, therefore, I beg you not to forget the Lord because of this world’s cares and preoccupations and not to turn away from His commandments, for all those who leave Him in oblivion and turn away from His commandments are cursed and will be left in oblivion by Him.
When the day of death does come, everything they think they have shall be taken from them. The wiser and more powerful they may have been in the world, the greater will be the punishment they will endure in hell.
Tough words, but charitable and strong is the message. Francis’s concern is that the leaders of his own time were preoccupied with their own success, power, money, control and self-interest. Some things indeed never change.
But this is not an admonition only for the rich and powerful, we are all — I suspect — subject to the “world’s cares and preoccupations” in our day-to-day lives. I know that I can be. In this sense Francis’s message is directed to all of us and as relevant as ever. He concludes with a call for the readers of this letter to go to the sacraments, transform their lives in such a way as to server others and to pray regularly. This last point is also inspired by Francis’s experience of Islam in Egypt, for he suggests that civil leaders assign some messenger to go throughout their respective towns and announce time for prayer by way of a sign.
With or without the prompting of a public call to prayer, may we today take to heart Francis’s reminder of the need to look beyond ourselves and our preoccupations to recall God and to live out the Baptismal vocation we have all received to follow in the footprints of Christ.